Once upon a time, Winnipeg's MTS Centre was such a tough place to play, the Winnipeg Jets feared no opponent and could take down just about any team that dared enter.
The Jets have lost three straight games at home, the latest coming Wednesday at the hands of the New York Rangers. The Jets led the mighty Rangers 2-0 in the game and showed flashes of that old killer instinct. But it didn't last long and the Rangers came back to win easily 4-2.
"A couple of weeks ago at home we'd have that chance and we'd finish teams off and if anything we'd step on the gas pedal," said Jets' forward Bryan Little afterward. "It seems like the last couple of games, I don't know what it is, it seems like we have a bit of a mental let up."
He added that "it kind of reminds me of the start of the season where we couldn't just finish teams off and we couldn't play with the lead and that's what we had tonight."
The Jets' record falls to 35-34-8 and the team remains stuck at 78 points, firmly in tenth place in the Eastern Conference and eight points back of the Buffalo Sabres which holds down the final playoff spot. The Rangers, 49-21-7, hang on to first in the conference with 105 points, five more than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
New York certainly offered Winnipeg every opportunity to take this one. The Rangers gave up five consecutive penalties to start the game and handed the Jets a two-man advantage at one point. But Winnipeg couldn't score and the team didn't mount much of a power-play attack all night.
The Jets did get two quick goals early in the second period by Spencer Machacek and Little. The goals came just 52 seconds apart and pumped up the home crowd. It looked for a few minutes like the Jets were on their way to a rout as the Rangers appeared disorganized and coach John Tortorella seemed more interested in berating the referees.
But then the tide turned.
It started with a short-handed goal by Ranger defenceman Michael Del Zotto at 7:44 of the second period. The goal came after some hard-charging by Ranger forward Ryan Callahan, who pushed the puck behind the Winnipeg net and got it out front to Del Zotto, who jammed it in. Callahan got a power play goal a few minutes later to tie it. The Rangers pulled ahead three minutes into the third on a goal by Brian Boyle. Derek Stepan added one more on another power play to put the game away.
"It was a really big play by [Callahan]on the shorthanded goal," Tortorella said after the game. "He does all the things. But everybody, not to shortchange [Callahan] but it's the best that we've played [over]the last 30, 35 minutes of [the]game in a while. Both away from the puck, our stinginess, blocking shots, just doing the things we need to do."
Jets coach Claude Noel agreed that the short-handed goal made a big difference.
"I think the turning point of the game really was the short-hand goal that [we]gave up because they didn't have a lot of life but they got a lot of life after that," he said. "I think that that really let them back into it and they got some life and they took over the game pretty much from there."
Noel also lamented the Jets weak power play, saying it lacked cohesion. As for the failed five-on-three, "sometimes it's an indication of your skill level, not always," he said declining further analysis.
Noel and several Jet players acknowledged a lack of intensity in the game saying the team felt emotionally drained having finally realized this week that just about all the club's playoff hopes have vanished. "I think so," Noel said when asked if the squelched playoff run had taken emotional toll. "When you look at the energy level I think it has. I thought tonight was difficult."
But he quickly added: "I'm not going to beat up on our team let's put it that way. I would rather just hold my thoughts to myself in regards to that [lack of effort].
Forward Tanner Glass agreed the players were drained. "I think I'd be lying if I said we weren't a little emotionally drained," he said. "It's difficult for sure. You play all year to get toward the playoffs and when you kind of squander some chances at home here... it's difficult."
The Jets hit the road for four games, starting with the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday and Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. They also play the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders before returning home for the season-ender against the Lightning.
Noel said before Wednesday's game that his objective was to keep the players focused on trying to win as many remaining games as possible.
"I don't get into the spoiler [role]" he said. "Our job is to win games and to compete and that's what we want to focus on."
As for the Rangers, the team return to New York to play Montreal on Friday, a little more comfortable in first place.
"It was a good game for us and where we're at as a team right now to come back," said Tortorella. "We just regrouped and played our game."